Hermitage staff carefully packing priceless paintings into crates for their long journey eastwards. (Large jpg - 63K)

Art heritage Saved for Humanity

During World War II the Soviet government ordered the monumental task of evacuating the contents of one of the world's finest musums to the safety of the Urals. Two trains set out for Sverdlovsk , where thousands of treasures were stored until Hitler's defeat in 1945. In Part I of a two-part series, Chris Graeme looks back at one of the greatest evacuations of art treasures in human history. Part II, in next week's issue, looks at how the treasures left behind were protected from the menacing tentacles of the Third Reich. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) the State Hermitage Museum has published "The Hermitage During the War" in memory of those who saved the country's greatest cultural assets both at the front and in the rear.

By 1938 it was obvious to the rest of Europe that Germany had plans to extend its territories and invade other countries. Hitler had made no secret of his desire to create "living space" in the East and by the second half of 1939 Russia found itself on the threshold of a potential war with Japan to the East and Germany to the West.

The Mutual Non-Aggression Pact which Germany and the Soviet Union signed at the end of 1939 bought Stalin time and postponed for over a year the eventual and inevitable invasion of the Soviet Union and Russia -- Operation Barbarossa.

At this time the Hermitage carried out the monumental task of preparing an evacuation plan for its treasures, to send them to a distant and secret destination where they could be hidden away.

The order given to the State Hermitage by the Soviet government dated July 15, 1941 calling for the evacuation of the Hemitage's art treasures.

The Hermitage succeeded, long before Hitler's troops crossed the frontier in 1941, in creating storage crates, designed to fit into special freight cars on two rail convoys, for countless paintings, statues, ceramics, jewelry and other priceless objects.

In each of the crates was a detailed inventory of every work of art. Each piece had an allotted crate which meant the exhibits could be evacuated in a very short period of time and were protected during their transportation.

At dawn on June 22, 1941 the German forces invaded Soviet territory and the war began. The evacuation of the Hermitage's treasures began two days later with the help of museum staff, an assortment of artists, scientists, actors and students who hadn't been conscripted into the army or navy and backed up with a couple of military subdivisions specially detailed to the Hermitage.

The packing was carried out around the clock and the Hermitage theater was turned into a dormitory for the packers. The Interior Ministry in Moscow dispatched a representative of the government's Art Committee -- Mr M.B. Krapchenko -- armed with the necessary paperwork and authority to start the evacuation.

Both the evacuation and the life of the employees at the Hermitage during the war and blockade of Leningrad has been well documented in the book "The Exploits of the Hermitage" by S. Varshavsky and B. Rest which was published several times.

Guard watches over the treasures. Watercolor by N.N. Maximova, 1942.

The authors drew upon documents, chronicles and recollections of many museum workers, both alive and deceased. Time and time again they were left asking the question, "why on earth did the Hermitage's employees, working in this difficult time, not bother to write their recollections down in diaries?" The answer is quite simple. The standard of life for most people had slowly gotten worse and this difficult work left them with little free time. Besides, the necessity to write things down simply didn't make itself felt. In addition, paper was scarce and the whole project was top secret.

The first special train, consisting of baggage wagons with their priceless freight, passenger cars for the museum workers accompanying it on its long journey to the East, and platform wagons mounted with antiaircraft guns, set off in the early morning of June 30, 1941, taking with it around half a million exhibits. Only a handful of top level ministers, including the Hermitage's evacuation project director, V. Levinson-Lessing, knew where the train was bound for.

On July 10 the train arrived in Sverdlovsk and the crates with the Hermitage's collections were deposited in three places -- an art gallery, a catholic church, and in the basement of the Ipiatev Mansion where the Russian Imperial family had been imprisoned and then shot in 1918.

Hermitage collections being unloaded at the Sverdlovsk Picture Gallery.

This is where the difficult and crucial work began for the Sverdlovsk Department affiliated to the State Hermitage. Apart from the tasks of conserving and storing the collections and drawing up a detailed inventory, the employees carried out a range of scientific and educational work which has never been forgotten by the people of Sverdlovsk until this day.

The second train, consisting of 45 Pullman cars, left Leningrad on July 20, in its freight wagons there were 1422 crates containing around 700,000 works of art bound for the same, as yet unknown, destination -- Sverdlovsk.

© 1995 St Petersburg Press